Chef Joe Doe Speaks Out About the New York Dining Circus

Yesterday we were highly entertained, though not exactly surprised, to see JoeDoe’s namesake chef-owner Joe Dobias lash out at Marc Shepherd for penning a review on his blog, NY Journal, that deemed the restaurant hard to take seriously: “Its quirky offerings often sound interesting, but when the plates arrive the payoff isn’t there.” In the comments, Dobias insisted the “malicious post” was revenge for the fact that Shepherd (whom Dobias went on to call “an angry little man” and a “hapless shameless little person,” even comparing him to George Costanza) hadn’t been allowed to take photos, and went on to share more opinions about “shithead bloggers” being “stuck up little kids” with “no training, no schooling, and probably as I always say no real life experience working in a restaurant.” Before JoeDoe opened his doors, we were probably the first outlet to get in touch with him, and have happily covered his experiments with Madoff menus, tongue-sandwich delivery, and of course its brunch battle with Prune; so we knew a little bit about his frustrations with PR and media coverage. So when his new PR intern e-mailed to tell us about a Fourth of July all-day rib roast (featuring specials such as pork ribs with pickled slaw, barbecue chicken with macaroni salad and summer greens, and crispy watermelon with Greek yogurt), we asked him for an on-the-record sit-down.

I think folks were a little surprised to see you blowing up on Eater yesterday.
I wasn’t surprised — I think that Eater is true to their intent in general, which is to be slanderous and mischievous. They’re always out for the bloodbath. Back in August, Amanda [Kludt, editor] had the audacity to fail to mention we were only open for two days when she wrote a really nasty post about my food and what I was doing.

So you banned Eater from the restaurant?
I told them basically that they were dead to us and that they were never welcome here, nor were their friends. Instead of helping the people they should be helping (like you guys do at New York Magazine), Eater just likes to take people down.

As a mom-and-pop (or rather husband-and-wife) operation, has it been frustrating trying to get the right attention for JoeDoe?
Yes and no. I think in general it’s who you know and who you blow, as they say — it’s like a big high school. All the kids on top who are popular don’t want anyone else to be popular. Even David Chang writes about how the first year no one had anything to do with him, but because he continued to say “fuck you” to everyone, he became cool and now no one wants to say anything bad about him. A lot of the bloggers don’t even know what the hell they’re talking about — they spend years in one career and one day they flip a light switch and decide they’re experts. I don’t go onto medical websites and tell people how to do surgeries better. I can never understand how restaurants went from being about eating to now being this whole circus.

Why did you decide to get a publicist after three or four months? Do you think the fact that you didn’t have one off the bat hurt you in terms of getting traditional reviews?
We were going through the recession like everybody else, and if you’re a survivor and you want to do something, you gotta do something to survive and give it everything you got. I don’t really understand the rhyme or reason as to how the Times or New York Magazine reviews people. They always bump the little guy in favor of the big guy who doesn’t really need the review. I know when DBGB opened, I said it’ll only be a month till they’re reviewed and we’ve already been here a year. I’m not saying I’m on their level, but if someone else opened up serving burgers, fries, and sausages, it wouldn’t be so much of a big deal. Plus, is Daniel Boulud really cooking for you over there? I worked for Ming Tsai and he didn’t do much cooking till I told him “you don’t really do much cooking, huh?” and he took offense; then he started cooking with us.

Why did you get rid of the PR firm?
I think that overall we got more press on our own than with PR. The PR person said you need to change all these things. I don’t know how they come off telling you how to run things. They’re not in operations. When, a month in, we told them no, we’re very happy with how it is, it became this rebuke, and they lost interest in us. The only thing they did was call Betsy Andrews and got her to come in, but they had nothing to do with why she came back and eventually gave us a Dining Brief.

So what did they tell you to change?
We were told that not having a wine list was ridiculous, but we can’t afford a wine list. And to put a bottle of wine on the table, serve sangria, all sorts of tired, hokey-pokey things. It was a circus mentality — watch this guy jump through flaming hoops but we’re not going to talk about what we’re actually doing here. We couldn’t just be who we were. And when we questioned why we weren’t getting people in despite all the press, we were told it wasn’t their fault.

How much was all this costing you, and affecting the bottom line?
It’s thousands a month, even for the smallest places. It’s almost $1,000 a week, which was maybe 25 to 30 percent of our gross.

Does cooking in such a small space every night, with such a close eye on your diners, spark a sort of Kenny Shopsin attitude, where you’re more controlling or temperamental than a chef who can’t see who’s eating his food?
Absolutely, the place is called JoeDoe because that’s my nickname even if people make fun of it. That’s why I find it hard to believe that someone would go and write that they’ve had a bad meal. I was standing right there and I cooked every morsel of food — if you have a problem, why not tell me you didn’t like the food, or something was overcooked … Instead you try to be snippy because you didn’t get the pictures you wanted. That’s just juvenile — you’re not entitled to do whatever you want in someone else’s place. At Cornell I was taught the customer is always right, but the customer is not always right.

Okay, so why are customers wrong for wanting to take photos?
I have a 26-seat restaurant the size of a studio apartment. Imagine if you dimmed the lights on your studio apartment and you had a flashbulb go off every twenty seconds. If I wanted my restaurant to be a discothèque, I would’ve opened a discothèque. If you want to take pictures I’ll always let you come back during non-service hours, but no one takes me up on that because they just want to come in for their 45-minute meal and write something really snippy if you’re not nice enough to them, or you do something they don’t like. If you really have a problem with what I do, don’t come here and tell me to be different — just don’t come here. But New York diners have a snobbish attitude — someone said recently that we’re a bunch of big kids. If I hear one more time that “my pork belly is too fatty,” I’m going to throw up.

You took offense to the review’s observation that no one else was in the restaurant. How is JoeDoe doing, anyway?
The thing that was ridiculous is that if the guy was here at 9:30 p.m. when most people in the East Village eat, he would’ve seen the place packed. Restaurants don’t need to make their money all day long — unfortunately there’s not a lot of diners out there, and unless you’ve been around for ten years à la Prune it’s very difficult during the week. I’m not going to say we’re packed Monday through Wednesday, but we do kick-ass business Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I have a ten-year lease and I’m not going anywhere.

You mentioned Prune, which you called out when you were first opening. What’s your relationship like now?
I don’t think we have a relationship. I have a lot of respect for [chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton] even though she doesn’t have respect for me.

What makes you think that?
She’s never spoken one word to me — parks her car outside my restaurant and never says hello.

Have you tried to reach out to her?
Yes and no. We are sort of intimidated by her, honestly — it’s the big fish, small fish thing. She’s the big dog on the block. In my mind I’d hope she’d approach it more in a mentor type way.

What about your relationship with your wife, Jill — has operating the restaurant almost literally hand in hand with her put a strain on things?
My dream of dreams is that we’d be the next Waltuck couple — our relationship has actually gotten stronger. I slowly sucked Jill away from her intense passion for dance but now she’s here and gets to see what I do on a daily basis, and now she has entered the big realm of cocktails and put everyone on notice.

Joe Doe Coda: “You Will Make Me Famous, and for That I Love You Little Bloggers”

Chef Joe Doe Speaks Out About the New York Dining Circus